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Vasturia, Notre Dame trying to redefine hoops success in South Bend

03/17/2017, 8:15pm EDT
By Josh Verlin

Steve Vasturia (above) is hoping to cap his Notre Dame career with a trip to Phoenix. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Four years ago, as a senior at Saint Joseph’s Prep, Steve Vasturia brought the Hawks as close as they’d ever been to a state championship, leading a charge into the PIAA Class AAAA semifinals before losing to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chester.

Now, as a senior once again, the 6-foot-5 wing guard from Medford (N.J.) is trying to do the same at Notre Dame. Except it’s not a state championship the Fighting Irish are after; it’s one of the regional -- and national -- variety.

Following two consecutive trips to the Elite 8, Vasturia has his eyes on bringing Notre Dame back into the Final Four for the first time since 1979.

The program has never won a national championship.

“I think those two losses in the Elite Eight drives this team, especially since the end of last year,” he said on Friday as he sat at the NCAA Tournament dais. “The guys in the locker room know what it felt like to lose, and that's kind of pushed us this year to try to take it a step further.”

Notre Dame (26-9), seeded No. 5 in the West Regional, takes on No. 4 West Virginia at 12:10 PM on Saturday afternoon (CBS). The winner advances to next weekend’s regional semifinal in a Sweet 16 matchup against either either No. 1 seed Gonzaga or No. 8 seed Northwestern; those two teams will match up at 5:15 PM Saturday in Salt Lake City.

In terms of pure wins, the last three years have been the most successful in Notre Dame history. The Irish have gone 82-27 (.752) in that span, making it to the regional final each of the last two years and knocking off a worthy Princeton foe in the first round on Thursday.

Vasturia has been a key piece during that stretch, contributing 1,389 points, 413 rebounds, 329 assists and 129 steals in his 136-game career.

Even during the program’s previous Golden Era under Digger Phelps, who brought the program from an six-win team in 1971-72 to one that made eight consecutive NCAA Tournaments from ‘74-’81, the Fighting Irish never won any more than seven tournament games in any four-year span.

A win over West Virginia tomorrow would be the eighth for Vasturia and his fellow seniors, as well as juniors like Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson who’ve been with the program the last three years as well.

That’s a nice bounce-back after a 15-17 season in 2013-14 ended without so much as an invite to one of the lower-level postseason competitions.

“I think especially after my freshman year of not making the tournament, we really got back to working out in the spring, and we (didn't) want to have (that) feeling again,” Vasturia said. “We want to get to the tournament, and ever since then we’ve been able to make some noise in the tournament, and we’ve been extremely confident.”

“We learned so much from that year and just some things that we went through,” Beachem agreed, “but then also you never want to feel like that again, and luckily we haven’t.”

Beachem (14.7 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and Vasturia (13.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.3 apg) aren’t the statistical leaders of this year’s Notre Dame squad -- Colson (17.5 ppg, 10.1 rpg) and Farrell (14.2 ppg, 5.4 apg) have the edge in the major categories -- but they’re certainly its heart and soul, like the Notre Dame seniors who came before them.

It’s been a journey for each of them to get there; naturally quiet young men, each had to be spurred along as freshmen and sophomores to start taking more responsibility with their teammates.

Both Beachem and Vasturia noted Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey as being a major reason they’ve gotten to that point, though Brey deferred, bringing up those who had been upperclassmen while the current seniors were in their first two years of college.

“They were really quiet guys and we had good vocal old guys when they were young and I think what's helped them, too, is seeing some of the older guys that have come before them,” Brey said. “They saw Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton lead one heck of a team two years ago. That's the best example ever. Nothing I can tell them is going to get them more ready to lead than seeing that.”

“As a freshman and sophomore you don’t really have to say too much, you just kind of follow the older guys,” Vasturia said. “I think that’s what was great for me, I had a lot of guys ahead of me where I was able to learn and continue to grow until as a junior and senior I was able to have my voice and be more of a leader.”

To make sure their impact on the Irish program lasts longer than just four years, Vasturia and Beachem have been imparting their wisdom on a talented group of underclassmen, including freshmen Temple Gibbs and sophomores Matt Ryan and Rex Pflueger. Even after they depart, the Irish will still be in good shape to continue its stretch of picking up wins come March.

But unlike the last two years, if Notre Dame loses before it reaches the Final Four, Vasturia won’t get another chance to have his One Shining Moment.

“Coach Brey always talks about not to take it for granted, not everybody has an opportunity to play in the tournament,” Vasturia said. “We've had a couple good runs. It's been a great season. We've had a lot of huge wins. I just want to continue to play as long as I can, and that starts with tomorrow and trying to get to the next round.”

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